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Fisheries & Cables and pipelines

With technical progress, economic development and globalisation, the volume of goods and services exchanged between countries and continents has been significantly rising since the late 20th century:  In 1950, the global trade value of goods exported throughout the world amounted to approximately 62 billion U.S. dollars, while this figure stands at around 25 trillion U.S. dollars in 2022 [1].This increase in the volume of goods and services exchanged is especially noticeable for energy transport and trade (electricity, oil, gas) as well as data exchange (worldwide web, telephone, digital data). This called for more efficient and bulkier techniques to transport growing volumes, leading to an increasing number of underwater cables and pipelines, now totaling an estimated 485 underwater cables [2] and almost 1,900 gas pipelines in 2023 [3].

In the meantime, fishing activity has also greatly evolved, with the global fishing fleet doubling between 1950 and 2015 [4] notably driven by substantial expansion of the motorised fleet. Even if the fishing sector has been in decline for the past 20 years (read below), the expansion of the activity during the past century combined with the increased number of cables and pipelines have led to a rise in the number of challenging interactions between those two elements, with fishing vessels accidentally damaging cables with their gear.

This fiche sets out the range of interactions to be considered between the fishing sector and cables & pipelines, and what MSP can do to avoid and mitigate possible negative interactions.  

Related challenges

The interactions between fisheries and underwater cables and pipelines can occur at different phases of the cable assessment and construction process. 

Occupation of fishing zones during the assessment and construction stage: TSO's and cable owners must undertake an assessment phase of the technical options and constraints prior to the installation. Studies often require that fishing boats are not present in the area in order to ensure safety and not to disrupt the ongoing studies [10]. The same issue applies in the construction phase, when cables are being installed, the worksite needing to be empty from other activities due to navigational safety. 

Operating phase: it is estimated that underwater cables are damaged by fishing gear or anchors about 100-150 times a year globally, and that more than two-thirds of all submarine cable faults are caused by fishing gear and anchors [11]. They represent the principal challenges in the interaction between underwater cables and fishing activity. 

Fishing vessels hooking a cable

A significant portion of commercial fishing activity relies on trawling, that involves towing a fishing net (“trawl”) behind a boat. Trawlers can drag their trawls within the water column (pelagic trawling) or over the seabed (bottom trawling). In the latter case, damage to cables or pipelines can occur from pulling fishing gear over them, or from fishing gear getting stuck underneath. This can cause cables or pipelines to be moved or dragged along, in the worst case leading to breakages.

Anchors being dropped on the cable

Anchors being dropped directly onto a cable or pipeline can also cause localized damage. The anchors of commercial vessels can penetrate the seabed to a depth of almost one meter[12], and can therefore hook a cable, even if it's silted in. Further damage can occur if the anchor is moved and hooks the cable or pipeline [13]. This issue is not specific to fishing vessels but for vessels generally.

 Dangers for the vessel and crew

Snagging a cable can be extremely dangerous for the vessel and crew. Modern underwater cables carry high voltages: more than 10,000 volts for communication cables and 500,000 volts for power cables. Both can cause electrocution and be lethal. Moreover, when the cable is being lifted (intentionally or not) by the vessel, cable entanglement may affect stability and result in vessels capsizing.

Dangers for the environment

In the event that a pipeline is damaged by an anchor or fishing gear, this can lead to leaking, potentially harmful elements into the ocean. Such spills can occur over a relatively large period of time as the leak can sometimes only be detected several weeks or even months after being hit by an anchor [14].

 

Related enablers

References 

DISCLAIMER: This page is based on the previous existing section “MSP Sectors and Conflicts” presented on the European MSP Platform, and where you can find the related fiche here.

Other references:

[4]https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1820344116

[10]https://www.comite-peches.fr/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Guide-Bonnes-pratiques-RTE-Comit%C3%A9s-p%C3%AAches-1.pdf

[11]https://www.iscpc.org/documents/?id=142

[13]https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-jersey-38141230

[14]https://www.barrons.com/news/finland-finds-anchor-that-likely-damaged-gas-pipeline-294395c0

[17]https://www.nffo.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Spatial-Squeeze-Apendices-F-H.pdf

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